In late 2005 Togo sealed qualification for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. It was a remarkable achievement for the tiny African nation with a virtually nonexistent football pedigree to earn the right to rub shoulders with some of the world’s most prestigious football nations. They weren’t the only African country making their World Cup debut, with Angola, Ghana and the Ivory Coast all debuting. Football fans were willing to give the African debutants a lot of time, hoping one of them would emulate the endearing efforts of previous African campaigns such as Senegal in 2002 and Cameroon in 1990. The world embraced Ivory Coast and Ghana in the build-up, during and for a decade after the tournament, while Angola got at least a little interest, more so for interest sake rather than genuine adoration. So why then did the world not take to Togo? Their brightly coloured kits and powerful star striker should have made a connection with older viewers with wistful memories of Roger Milla dancing around a corner flat. Instead, the great bulk of football fans actively rooted against the West African team.
The answer is disappointedly simple. Money. The Togolese players were furious at their Football Federation over a dispute over bonuses. Evidently, the Togolese FA had laid down a bonus structure incentivising their players to qualify for the World Cup, like everyone else, presumably not really expecting their team to do the business in a tricky group featuring Senegal. When they defied the odds to qualify, they were unwilling to pay out. This was the rumours circulating at the time, though there were darker rumours circulating. It was suggesting that bonuses had been paid to the players, with several players demanding significantly larger sums of money, encouraging their entire squad to protest with them.
The concept of players demanding more money is hardly groundbreaking stuff, with the increasing power of agents in football it is commonplace for contract disputes in an attempt to boost players pay packet. It is easy to forget that Manchester United legend Wayne Rooney twice threatened to leave his beloved club over not being paid what his agent said he deserved. So what was the big deal with the Togolese players wanting more money for their efforts?
The root of the problem was money, but the dislike for the Togo football team was their reaction to not getting paid what they wanted. The players threatened to strike. The players had worked so hard for two years to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. They had brought indescribable joy to a nation that was less than 50 years removed from gaining independence, having been colonised by France for years. Their football team had put Togo on the map for many and had a chance to write their countries name in the football history books, only to have their name blacklisted.
Their coach, German-born Otto Pfister had developed a niche career of managing primarily African and Asian countries, aiming to get these sides into tournaments. Pfister was named Togo boss months before the tournament kicked off, the FA hoping his experience could get the best from this group of players who had been placed in an intriguing group: France – low on confidence after two poor international tournaments, South Korea – surely unable to replicate their 2002 escapades, and Switzerland – ferocious in qualifying but with little success on the big stage. Pfister was brought in to help cause an upset. With the unseemly dispute between FA and players, the coach ended up being upset, rather than causing one.
Pfister quit shortly before the tournament. At the ripe old age of 68, he stated that he simply couldn’t deal with these working conditions. He felt let down by the Togolese FA and unable to carry out his work under such duress. A turbulent few days played out whereby Togo set about finding their next coach, only for the German manager to do a U-turn, convinced by his Togo team to stick with the project.
So what exactly were the demands by the Togolese players? The players demanded that they were paid £105,900 each to participate in the World Cup. This would cost the Togolese FA just shy of £2.5 million. On top of this base fee, there were demands of £20,500 per player for a win in the tournament or £10,000 for a draw. This may be in line with other nations, but it was a sum that the Federation were simply unwilling to facilitate. Togo, like so many other African countries, was a nation shrouded in poverty, the average income in 2006 being less than £500 per year.
FIFA had to intervene, insisting that the government and the players met some kind of compromise in the end, as it would have been an embarrassment to all concerned to have a team bail on the tournament at this late stage. With just days to go until the FIFA World Cup kicked off, a deal was struck with regards to bonuses. It was arranged that each player would earn £82,500 for the tournament, £20,500 for a win and £10,250 for a draw. This appeared to be a fair compromise, though there was still unrest in the Togo camp…
Togo travelled to Germany, later than scheduled as part of the protest, and partook in an exciting match against South Korea in their opening game. On a scorching day in Frankfurt, Togo shook the football world, for a brief spell! They took the lead against the Asian opposition through an impressive strike by forward Mohamed Kader. Despite being the lowest ranked team in Germany, and with the dark cloud overshadowing their bank accounts, the world couldn’t help but smile. Forget the off-field issues, this was what the World Cup was about. South Korea mounted a comeback to win 2-1 in the second half, but for a good 15 minutes, Togo were top of their World Cup group, and they were deserving of their lead.
For a while, Togo had the neutrals back on side. This feeling vanished quickly on the eve of their second game against Switzerland when the threats of striking reared its ugly head. Having worked hard with the Togolese Football Federation to come up with a deal that suited all. The players were quite rightly furious when they discovered that they still hadn’t received a penny. They initially indicated that they would refuse to travel from their base to Dortmund to train for the match, but an intervention from FIFA forced their hand. FIFA had a nightmare scenario on their hands, they were on the brink of having to exclude Togo from the tournament. At best they could compromise by docking Togo points, at worst they may have to ban them from future tournaments.
The players opted to forgo their strike, though the mere threat was enough to anger fans. Some people did sympathise with the Togo players. They wanted a fair pay in comparison to other teams in the tournament and were being undersold by their own Football Federation. Others were unhappy at the players threatening to unsettle the delicate ecosystem that is the FIFA World Cup. Some argue that playing for their national team in a World Cup should be honour enough, that bonuses are an unneeded distraction. When the average income in Togo is so low, it seemed unseemly for the players to collectively demand more than the country’s GDP. Both the players AND the FA acted in a distasteful way during the 2006 World Cup, but any good credit build up by the Togolese players in the first game was wiped out by this strike threat.
They played their match against Switzerland, losing 2-0. They were weakened by the fact that their captain, Jean-Paul Abalo was suspended following his red card against the Koreans on match day one (a dismissal that was highly costly for his team, Korea equalised with the subsequent free-kick then won it playing with a man advantage for over half an hour). They went into their last game facing France. They were eliminated by this stage, but they were playing a France side who were playing poorly, with the intricate backstory of Togo facing the side who had spent decades colonising their country. The story was there to be written, but Patrick Vieira had other ideas. Rarely has a player taken a game by the scruff of the neck the way Vieira did against Togo, dominating the match to ensure France qualified for the Round of 16 while Togo went home pointless.
Over a decade has passed since this incident yet it still leaves a sour taste in the mouth. I may be naive, given the unceremonious occurrences that have befallen FIFA over the past few years, a path so dark and murky that I daren’t discuss it here, but to me, the World Cup is pure. It is, in my mind, a celebration of football. The top teams battling it out, the big name players proving they are big game players. The group of death. The stunning goals and the wild celebrations. And of course, the plucky underdog stories. To my mind, you should want to see the small nations like Togo do well, but between their players, their coach and their Football Federation, they made a mockery of the whole thing. They made history for their country and all their World Cup legacy shows is a dispute of money, by a corrupt FA and a greedy set of players. In an interview almost a year later, Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor gave an interview in which he stated that he and his Togo teammates were yet to receive their full pay packets by their FA. The whole fiasco was a farce from start to finish and left a stain on what was an excellent World Cup.